Chapter 30On Moderation
As if we had an infectious touch, we, by our manner of handling, corrupt things that in themselves are laudable and good: we may grasp virtue so that it becomes vicious, if we embrace it too stringently and with too violent a desire. Those who say, there is never any excess in virtue, forasmuch as it is not virtue when it once becomes excess, only play upon words:
Insani sapiens nomen ferat, aequus iniqui,
Ultra quam satis est, virtutem si petat ipsam.
Let the wise man bear the name of a madman, the just one of an unjust, if he seek wisdom more than is sufficient. ❦
This is a subtle consideration of philosophy. A man may both be too much in love with virtue, and be excessive in a just action. Holy Writ agrees with this, “Be not wiser than you should, but be soberly wise.”
The archer that shoots over, misses as much as he that falls short, and ‘tis equally troublesome to my sight, to look up at a great light, and to look down into a dark abyss. Callicles in Plato says, that the extremity of philosophy is hurtful, and advises not to dive into it beyond the limits of profit; that, taken moderately, it is pleasant and useful; but that in the end it renders a man brutish and vicious, a contemner of religion and the common laws, an enemy to civil conversation, and all human pleasures, incapable of all public administration, unfit either to assist others or to relieve himself, and a fit object for all sorts of injuries and affronts. He says true; for in its excess, it enslaves our natural freedom, and by an impertinent subtlety, leads us out of the fair and beaten way that nature has traced for us.
The love we bear to our wives is very lawful, and yet theology thinks fit to curb and restrain it. As I remember, I have read in one place of St. Thomas Aquinas, where he condemns marriages within any of the forbidden degrees, for this reason, amongst others, that there is some danger, lest the friendship a man bears to such a woman, should be immoderate; for if the conjugal affection be full and perfect betwixt them, as it ought to be, and that it be over and above surcharged with that of kindred too, there is no doubt, but such an addition will carry the husband beyond the bounds of reason.
I have known a great man, prejudice the opinion men had of his devotion, by pretending to be devout beyond all examples of others of his condition.
I love temperate and moderate natures. An immoderate zeal, even to that which is good, even though it does not offend, astonishes me, and puts me to study what name to give it. Neither the mother of Pausanias, who was the first instructor of her son’s process, and threw the first stone towards his death, nor Posthumius the dictator, who put his son to death, whom the ardour of youth had successfully pushed upon the enemy a little more advanced than the rest of his squadron, do appear to me so much just as strange; and I should neither advise nor like to follow so savage a virtue, and that costs so dear.
Those sciences that regulate the manners of men, divinity and philosophy, will have their say in everything; there is no action so private and secret that can escape their inspection and jurisdiction. They are best taught who are best able to control and curb their own liberty; women expose their nudities as much as you will upon the account of pleasure, though in the necessities of physic they are altogether as shy. I will, therefore, in their behalf: teach the husbands, that is, such as are too vehement in the exercise of the matrimonial duty—if such there still be—this lesson, that the very pleasures they enjoy in the society of their wives are reproachable if immoderate, and that a licentious and riotous abuse of them is a fault as reprovable here as in illicit connections. Those immodest and debauched tricks and postures, that the first ardour suggests to us in this affair, are not only indecently but detrimentally practised upon our wives. Let them at least learn impudence from another hand; they are ever ready enough for our business, and I for my part always went the plain way to work.
Marriage is a solemn and religious tie, and therefore the pleasure we extract from it should be a sober and serious delight, and mixed with a certain kind of gravity; it should be a sort of discreet and conscientious pleasure. And seeing that the chief end of it is generation, some make a question, whether when men are out of hopes as when they are superannuated or already with child, it be lawful to embrace our wives. ‘Tis homicide, according to Plato. Certain nations (the Mohammedan, amongst others) abominate all conjunction with women with child, others also, with those who are in their courses. Zenobia would never admit her husband for more than one encounter, after which she left him to his own swing for the whole time of her conception, and not till after that would again receive him: a brave and generous example of conjugal continence.
The kings of Persia were wont to invite their wives to the beginning of their festivals; but when the wine began to work in good earnest, and that they were to give the reins to pleasure, they sent them back to their private apartments, that they might not participate in their immoderate lust, sending for other women in their stead, with whom they were not obliged to so great a decorum of respect. All pleasures and all sorts of gratifications are not properly and fitly conferred upon all sorts of persons. Epaminondas had committed to prison a young man for certain debauches; for whom Pelopidas mediated, that at his request he might be set at liberty, which Epaminondas denied to him, but granted it at the first word to a wench of his, that made the same intercession; saying, that it was a gratification fit for such a one as she, but not for a captain. Sophocles being joint praetor with Pericles, seeing accidentally a fine boy pass by: “O what a charming boy is that!” said he. “That might be very well,” answered Pericles, “for any other than a praetor, who ought not only to have his hands, but his eyes, too, chaste.”
But, to speak the truth, is not man a most miserable creature the while? It is scarce, by his natural condition, in his power to taste one pleasure pure and entire; and yet must he be contriving doctrines and precepts to curtail that little he has; he is not yet wretched enough, unless by art and study he augment his own misery:
Human wisdom makes as ill use of her talent, when she exercises it in rescinding from the number and sweetness of those pleasures that are naturally our due, as she employs it favourably and well in artificially disguising and tricking out the ills of life, to alleviate the sense of them. Had I ruled the roast, I should have taken another and more natural course, which, to say the truth, is both commodious and holy, and should, peradventure, have been able to have limited it too; notwithstanding that both our spiritual and corporal physicians, as by compact betwixt themselves, can find no other way to cure, nor other remedy for the infirmities of the body and the soul, than by misery and pain. To this end, watchings, fastings, hair-shirts, remote and solitary banishments, perpetual imprisonments, whips and other afflictions, have been introduced amongst men: but so, that they should carry a sting with them, and be real afflictions indeed; and not fall out as it once did to one Gallio, who having been sent an exile into the isle of Lesbos, news was not long after brought to Rome, that he there lived as merry as the day was long; and that what had been enjoined him for a penance, turned to his pleasure and satisfaction: whereupon the Senate thought fit to recall him home to his wife and family, and confine him to his own house, to accommodate their punishment to his feeling and apprehension. For to him whom fasting would make more healthful and more sprightly, and to him to whose palate fish were more acceptable than flesh, the prescription of these would have no curative effect; no more than in the other sort of physic, where drugs have no effect upon him who swallows them with appetite and pleasure: the bitterness of the potion and the abhorrence of the patient are necessary circumstances to the operation. The nature that would eat rhubarb like buttered turnips, would frustrate the use and virtue of it; it must be something to trouble and disturb the stomach, that must purge and cure it; and here the common rule, that things are cured by their contraries, fails; for in this one ill is cured by another.
It was doubtless from some lascivious poet, and one that himself was in great distress for a little of this sport, that Plato borrowed this story; that Jupiter was one day so hot upon his wife, that not having so much patience as till she could get to the couch, he threw her upon the floor, where the vehemence of pleasure made him forget the great and important resolutions he had but newly taken with the rest of the gods in his celestial council, and to brag that he had had as good a bout, as when he got her maidenhead, unknown to their parents.
Ælius Verus, the emperor, answered his wife, who reproached him with his love to other women, that he did it upon a conscientious account, forasmuch as marriage was a name of honour and dignity, not of wanton and lascivious desire; and our ecclesiastical history preserves the memory of that woman in great veneration, who parted from her husband because she would not comply with his indecent and inordinate desires. In fine, there is no pleasure so just and lawful, where intemperance and excess are not to be condemned.
This belief a little resembles that other so ancient one, of thinking to gratify the gods and nature by massacre and murder: an opinion universally once received in all religions. And still, in these later times wherein our fathers lived, Amurath at the taking of the Isthmus, immolated six hundred young Greeks to his father’s soul, in the nature of a propitiatory sacrifice for his sins. And in those new countries discovered in this age of ours, which are pure and virgin yet, in comparison of ours, this practice is in some measure everywhere received: all their idols reek with human blood, not without various examples of horrid cruelty: some they burn alive, and take, half broiled, off the coals to tear out their hearts and entrails; some, even women, they flay alive, and with their bloody skins clothe and disguise others. Neither are we without great examples of constancy and resolution in this affair the poor souls that are to be sacrificed, old men, women, and children, themselves going about some days before to beg alms for the offering of their sacrifice, presenting themselves to the slaughter, singing and dancing with the spectators.
The ambassadors of the king of Mexico, setting out to Fernando Cortez the power and greatness of their master, after having told him, that he had thirty vassals, of whom each was able to raise an hundred thousand fighting men, and that he kept his court in the fairest and best fortified city under the sun, added at last, that he was obliged yearly to offer to the gods fifty thousand men. And it is affirmed, that he maintained a continual war, with some potent neighbouring nations, not only to keep the young men in exercise, but principally to have wherewithal to furnish his sacrifices with his prisoners of war. At a certain town in another place, for the welcome of the said Cortez, they sacrificed fifty men at once. I will tell you this one tale more, and I have done; some of these people being beaten by him, sent to acknowledge him, and to treat with him of a peace, whose messengers carried him three sorts of gifts, which they presented in these terms: “Behold, lord, here are five slaves: if thou art a furious god that feedeth upon flesh and blood, eat these, and we will bring thee more; if thou art an affable god, behold here incense and feathers; but if thou art a man, take these fowls and these fruits that we have brought thee.”
Scans of the 1588 French edition of the Essays (Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux, S 1238 Res. C) courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.
How to cite this page
- Montaigne, Michel de. “On Moderation.” Translated by Charles Cotton. HyperEssays.net. Last modified March 30, 2021. https://hyperessays.net
Translation by Charles Cotton (1686, Public domain). • Alternate title(s): Of Moderation • Word count in French editions: Ⓐ 824, Ⓑ 1,353, Ⓒ 1,911 (Bordeaux copy 1,906) • Last modified on March 30, 2021.